So what does it mean, to be or not to be, a Hindu woman? I have been mulling over this question for some time now, and being, or not being, a Hindu woman is something that brings many aspects of one’s existence into play. My body, for a start: in the month of July 2018, when the rains were in full spate, I took myself off to an Ayurvedic resort.

There, this widow’s torso and limbs were oiled and pounded and steamed and massaged while the rain fell gently on the tiled roof, by young women, two at a time, their fingers practiced and skilful, impersonal enough so that I did not feel any intrusion, just a grateful sensuous pleasure. Only on the fourth day did they bring in a transistor radio and ask me, shyly, if I was troubled by the music.

Of course I wasn’t: the contemporary songs in Malayalam and Hindi, tunes I usually listen to in my car, were nice to share. By this time I knew a bit about their lives, or at least their work schedules. Ayurveda is not a uniform science all over India: what I experienced here was a series of techniques, medications and diets developed specifically in Kerala.

A Hindu woman’s body can become a source of pollution; something that can threaten the efficacy of holy rituals (usually designed to attain very material objectives), pollute a ritually purified space – or even ruin pickles. This happens during menstruation and again, at the actual time of childbirth.

But a woman’s body can also be dangerous; its seductive power can break the spell of a male ascetic’s contemplative exercises. Brahmanical Hinduism places great value on self-control, essentially an attribute, an attainment, of the high-caste male: it is he who is capable of voluntary celibacy, bodily discipline, self-sacrifice. For a woman to relate to her own body is essentially destructive. For a young girl to experience puberty in the context of these ideas and practices of exclusion is surely damaging to her sexuality and to her sense of self.

Hinduism allows “one” to be an atheist, but that “one” is usually a man. My father was a self-proclaimed atheist, but he did not demur at putting his religion down as “Hindu”. He saw no contradiction in this; in fact, he rather enjoyed it. But what place is there for a woman who is an atheist? If you’re rich enough to be part of a really westernised elite, being an atheist Hindu woman might not be such an anomaly.

But I am middle-class. Upper-caste, yes, but middle-class. And although I can say that I’ve lived my life more or less as I wanted to, the restrictions of, and expectations from, the religion I was born into have made themselves felt at various times and on several occasions. Sometimes through lack of access to spaces I wished to enter, or because of the opinions of those around you that you cannot ignore or dismiss. More often, religion is felt not as a restriction, but as an overwhelming presence, casting a misogynistic shadow over all one’s relationships.

Today, I see myself as privileged, economically self- sufficient, and free of pressing responsibility for others. But in the Hindu view I am a widow, a person who has served her life’s purpose, and now has no justification for her existence.

Of course, modern Hindus are kind to me, refraining from pointing out the superfluousness of my continued existence, saying, ‘It is good that you keep yourself busy.’ This is one way in which Hinduism daily constitutes the way we see one other, the way we relate to each other. The only way a woman in my situation is accepted is if she embeds herself in a patriarchal family structure, upholding its values and passing them on to the next generation.

I realised long ago that Hinduism is about relationships between people; it lays down norms, and leaves it to us to censure each other if we do not follow them. There is no central authority that frowns on transgressions; there is no single undisputed sacred text that can be referred to. Normativity is always implemented socially.

That is how, and why, there is easy legitimacy for those vigilantes we see nowadays, opposing anything from supposed beef-eating to boy-girl friendships or women drinking in pubs. I also think that this is how the caste system has managed to be so durable and so ubiquitous, and also adaptable to change.

This socially exercised normativity is, of course, much more restrictive in rural settings. I was born into a caste that now has hardly any rural roots, and now that I reflect on it, its location has shaped its caste culture to a significant extent. More generally, social normativity is evident in the Indian village through caste patriarchy.

Caste shapes the social map of the village, creating single-caste enclaves, and at the same time reproducing caste hierarchy through the relative placement of upper-caste and lower-caste colonies. Patriarchy within the caste, and hierarchy among different castes, both target women, resulting in a social tolerance of violence against them, both on a daily basis and in extreme forms, when there is caste conflict or a violation of the norms of caste endogamy.

This pattern is easily imposed on Muslim, Sikh and Christian minorities within the village. They reproduce themselves in lower-class urban settings, too, with crowded neighbourhoods often being colonised through caste networks, as earlier migrants to the city help out their kin and caste fellows. Many working-class chawls in modern Mumbai, even today, display a more cosmopolitan pattern of settlement, with neighbours belonging to different caste and regional backgrounds. This is true of the Irani chawl in which my late husband spent his childhood and early youth.

Of course, these chawls are now being rapidly “redeveloped” and mill lands converted to sites of luxury towers and malls, with the original inhabitants banished to the outer suburbs of the city. Much has been written about these changes, how caste and class shift and yet reproduce themselves in urban spaces,5 all of which concerns women very much, as they are required to maintain relationships with neighbours, follow social norms, and (often) impose them on others.

When there was a severe earthquake in Latur district in Maharashtra in 1993 (which killed over 20,000 people, completely destroyed 73 villages and affected 700 more) all attempts to break the prevalent caste patterns of housing in the rehabilitation settlements, failed. People just did not want to be resettled in mixed-caste colonies.

Residential segregation is very much a characteristic feature of the caste system in India, one which adapts itself to changing situations as ‘development’ takes place. Even a natural disaster that affects everybody, does not affect everybody in the same way, and does not bridge divides; the tenacity of caste keeps prevalent structures virtually intact.

In the case of the Hindu-Muslim faultline, communal riots can entail a segregation which might not have existed earlier. We witnessed this when we were living in Aurangabad, a city with a significant Muslim minority (30 per cent). After the communal riots of 1988, mixed-religion colonies ceased to exist; we saw our Muslim friends relocating before our eyes. Thirty years on, the Muslim areas are conspicuous for suffering continuous civic neglect. Segregation can facilitate communal tension unless citizens come together to prevent it; but even when riots are prevented, earlier segregation remains.

As a “Hindu” woman citizen, I am painfully aware of how caste-class hierarchies and religious divides shape living spaces. Moving into modern apartment blocks in Aurangabad and, later, Mumbai, I have been given uninvited assurances by builders that I will not have any Muslim neighbours.

Caste is not spoken about so openly, but most middle-class Dalits live in same-caste enclaves. As an upper-caste Hindu woman, I used to be invited to neighbours’ all-women gatherings for haldi-kunku, where married women, a few weeks after Makar Sankranti, celebrate their ‘possession’ of a living husband and adorn each others’ foreheads with the marks of this status. I gradually opted out, joining only the small-savings groups with my neighbours.

Now, in my new home, my widowhood automatically excludes me from the religious ceremony. The much-vaunted “tolerance” and “pluralism” of Hinduism applies only to men, whose eccentricities, infidelities, atheism, arrogance and argumentativeness, are ignored by the keepers of Hindu patriarchy, albeit in an approved caste setting. The smallest little girl carries on her fragile shoulders the burden of preserving the honour of her family, her gender, her caste and her tribe.

It is not surprising that those who have, in recent times, found it expedient to declare their position vis à vis Hinduism, have been men. It was in 1995 that Kancha Ilaiah first published his short but fiery book, Why I Am Not a Hindu. He writes as a non-Brahmin, a Bahujan, member of an animal- rearing caste, the Kurumas, in Andhra Pradesh.

He argues first, that from childhood, the community he felt himself to be a part of was his caste, rather than some nation-wide religious group. The rituals they followed, the gods they worshipped, and the values that were taught and upheld related to a working life, the devotional practice and morality of an artisanal community. He argues that patriarchy is less toxic when men and women work together.

Ilaiah wrote his book when the first tremors of an aggressive Hindutva tidal wave that has now engulfed us, was rising. It found wide readership, but what is interesting is that, a little more than twenty years later, we have other writers declaring that they are Hindu, but that their Hinduism is different from the virulent, hate-mongering Hindutva we see around us today.

Shashi Tharoor’s book, Why I Am a Hindu, published in 2018, may or may not have been written with this motive, but he argues for the tolerant, syncretic and pluralist aspects of “Hinduism”. He is widely read, in a literary sense, and quotes selectively from the scriptures and various Hindu philosophers. For example, he cites Vivekananda as saying that Buddhism completed the work of the Vedantic tradition. However, this glosses over the historical fact of the almost complete banishment of Buddhism from India.

Caste is presented not as a prescription of the sacred texts, but as practised by the uneducated, rather than by those who read and are acquainted with modern culture. Kancha Ilaiah, in a scathing review, accuses Tharoor of hiding the fact that his own Nair caste is Shudra by status. The matrilineal tradition of the Nairs sanctioned the exploitation of Nair women’s sexuality by Namboodiri Brahmins, something that Tharoor neglects to mention.

Rahul Gandhi, describing himself as a janeu-wearing Brahmin, is perhaps more honest when he tries to project a soft Hindutva, but it is arguable whether he is deliberately asserting his Brahmin status in order to portray the Congress leadership as Brahmanical. The posturing of politicians should not be taken too seriously, and it is doubtful that it is effective in achieving its desired objectives, but it is still an interesting phenomenon because they feel the need today to publicly declare their position.

Excerpted with permission from Why I Am Not a Hindu Woman: A Personal Story, Wandana Sonalkar, Women Unlimited.